The Difference Between Proactive and Reactive Short-Term Mission Trips and The Case for Neither

It was a warm mid-June day. The t-shirts were on 17 smiling, chatty people for everyone in the airport to see. Highlighter yellow. The front of the shirts read, “Sunnyville Church Guatemala Mission Trip 2015” in bold font. Backs read, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19” with bold and italicized font. Luggage scattered everywhere and large plastic bins full of Bibles (in Spanish, of course), hand-me-down clothes, travel-size toiletries, paint supplies, craft supplies, and toys.

Some strangers walked up to those who appeared to be the adults or leaders of the group speaking softly but boldly, saying things like, “Prayers for safe travels” or “Prayers for God to move while you all are there” or “God bless you all.”

After the luggage and bins of stuff were checked, the yellow highlighters moved to their appropriate terminal. While waiting to board their Delta flight, some people played cards. Some read. Others lounged, eyes closed with earbuds in and blasting music loud enough people 10 yards away could hear.

Fast forward to the long-anticipated arrival at their temporary home for the next seven days. Four people to a room. Meet back in the lobby for a brief team meeting. Inventory check of all the things in the plastic bins. Everything is still there. Go to bed early because the next day was going to be an important and long one.

Arrive on site at 8:00 in the morning where there is a one-room school as well as the foundation of a future building that will become the small community’s health clinic. Men and a few young women immediately put on work gloves and walk towards the construction zone. Women and a few young men head to the school with the paint supplies, craft supplies, and toys. But they all notice that they are the only ones there. Tilt and scratch heads.

An hour later and slowly the members of the community begin to show. Kids are running ahead of their parents, anticipating that fun things are probably waiting for them. Parents and other adults leisurely stroll toward the building while Sunnyville Church members are agitated and confused as to why they have just now arrived.

Fast forward to the middle of the week. Much construction has been completed. Local kids are running around in shirts that read, “Sunnyville YMCA” or “Sunnyville Church VBS 2010” or “Sunnyville Youth Soccer Association” with brand new white and blue soccer balls rolling across the patchy and bumpy land. The local women sit next to one another giggling and laughing in harmony with ziplock bags full of travel-size toiletries next to them. The local men stand by the construction zone, observing what’s happening.

The Sunnyville teenagers are playing with the kids and taking pictures of the kids. The Sunnyville women are inside the school painting the walls yellow and green. The Sunnyville men are sweating their faces off, manually laboring over the construction of this health clinic.

Fast forward to the last night of the trip. The team splits into four small groups. Everyone is invited to share how the week transformed him or her.

“I can’t believe how happy they are with having so little.”
“I feel so grateful for the things I have. I realize I take those things for granted.”
“I still don’t understand how they take such a long lunch break.”
“Did you see so and so’s face after I gave him my shoes?!? I felt like I needed to do that and I’m glad I did. They were getting kind of old anyway.”
“I hope next time we come back that they still have those Bibles.”
“The school looks beautiful inside. I’m glad we chose those colors.”
“The clinic is in good shape and the next team of Americans should be able to do a lot of good work!”
“I still can’t get over how late they showed up everyday!”

Fast forward to the start of the new school year. The trip that was just two months ago is now just a moment in their histories. When others ask them about it, they respond by basically saying, “The trip was amazing. We did a lot of great work by painting the school, building onto the health clinic, and giving the people Bibles and clothes. The trip transformed me. I am so blessed.”

Fast forward to one year later. In that same small community, the health clinic is fully built but no one or nothing is inside. The school’s walls are now blue. The children are wearing Shineytown YMCA shirts, not Sunnyville YMCA shirts, and are playing with white and black soccer balls.

Sunnyville Church and its 17-member volunteer team does not exist. However, the experiences and situations of the aforementioned story are unfortunately way too common. I realize I might have described the recent short-term mission trip you just went on. And I realize I might be offending some people. But in my line of work and from my experiences, it would be irresponsible of me to not bring this to the table for discussion.

What got me writing this was when I recently Googled this: short-term mission trip news. Articles fromChristian Broadcasting Network (,Christianity Today (,Center for Student Missions ( popped up as well as advertisements for mission opportunities. There was also the oh so current and common article titled, “7 Reasons You Should Go on a Mission Trip” (

Honestly, most of the articles were on the right track but not fully there. What I can infer from these articles from my personal experiences and from other trusted resources (including my education from seminary) that I have yet to hear anyone put into these specific words is that STM teams are being both proactive and reactive. And being proactive might sound like a positive thing, right? In terms of STMs, however, I would not want that word to describe a trip of mine. Let me explain.

pro·ac·tive: prōˈaktiv, adjective; (of a person, policy, or action) creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.

Did you just have an “aha” moment? Do you understand why being proactive is actually a damaging and selfish thing? When we are proactive in preparing for our short-term mission trips, we are assuming we know what is best for others. We are making the statement that our solutions are the best fit for their problems. We are placing the labels of “helpless” and “poor” on those we are serving.

Being reactive isn’t the way to go either, even though you might be thinking that since it’s the opposite of proactive, which I just got finished denouncing, it would be.

re·ac·tive: rēˈaktiv, adjective; acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it.

By being reactive, an action is involved. We are still doing something. The perfect example from Sunnyville’s trip would be the reactions and assumptions that the locals were not timely and did not have a strong work ethic. The Americans who noticed that the locals were “seemingly” late and “seemingly” lazy placed different kinds of labels on the locals – lazy, late, don’t work hard, ungrateful

The case I am making for short-term mission trips is that we stop being proactive and reactive. Rather, we need to be deliberate.

de·lib·er·ate: dəˈlib(ə)rət, adjective; done consciously and intentionally.

Maybe we don’t realize it and most of the time we don’t have ill intent but when we are deliberate, we are preparing in a different kind of way. When we are deliberate, we are thinking about others first. We are doing our research to understand cultural differences, because after all, we are the ones crossing into a culture foreign to us. When we are deliberate, we understand that the agenda of the community we are serving is immeasurably more important than our agenda. When we are deliberate, we are serving alongside people and with people instead of doing for them. When we are deliberate, we recognize that we are in fact all of God’s children and that no one person is “better off” than another. When we are deliberate, we recognize that it is not solely about our individual experiences but rather the collective experience from how the Holy Spirit moves and transforms in everyone. When we are deliberate, we begin to see the deeper levels of our unbroken world and seek to become more deeply engaged in this broken world.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to international short-term missions verbiage or phrases is this or any variation of this: “I realized I am so blessed.” Yes, you are and I am not saying you aren’t. But to me, saying this after you go on an international mission trip implies that the people you were serving for a week are not. If we are all children of God, are we not all blessed by just being loved by the One who out of anyone has the best reason to not love us? Again, yes you are blessed. But the kicker is that every living creature is blessed.

Maybe it’s just me. And I think I’m okay with that. But if short-term missions are going to continue to shift in the right direction, I sincerely hope and pray that our proactive and reactive actions become much, much less and instead that our deliberate thoughts, preparedness, and actions become much, much more. Short-term mission trips, if led and lived deliberately, place a heavier emphasis on the front end and back end – preparation and debriefing. There is the underlying tone that what we are doing is intentional. In the grand scheme of things, that one week of living in an international place is just a tiny percentage of the whole.

Stay tuned for more pot-stirring. The Great Commission? Nah. More like the Greatest Commandment.


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